Companies improve staff the easy way

Community colleges can be inexpensive training departments

December 28, 2003|By ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. - The problem is simple enough: Many of the "leasing consultants" at Cameo Professionals Inc., a manager of apartment complexes, do not see themselves primarily as salespeople. They have other duties and sometimes let the art of selling slip to second place.

That lack of focus was showing up in falling occupancy rates at the 14 apartment complexes that Cameo manages.

"Ideally, you want to have 100 percent occupancy" of the approximately 4,000 units that the company runs in Central Florida, said Gina Dole, director of human resources for the Orlando company. "Anything below 90 percent, you've got to look at what's happening."

When the company looked recently, it decided training that would sharpen the employees' focus and give them better sales skills seemed the obvious solution. But for Dole - who along with an administrative assistant makes up the 130-employee company's entire human resources department - a training project like that would be a strain.

"I could develop a course," Dole said. "I could teach it. But is that a good use of my time?" No, she figured. Instead, Cameo Professionals did what many companies across the country - even some very small ones - are increasingly doing: It turned to a nearby community college to act as its training department.

Dole reckons she would have needed 10 hours of preparation for each hour of classroom instruction. So, a four-hour course to hone employees' sales skills would have taken her more than a week to put together and teach. That would have cost the company more than $1,100, she said.

In the end, Cameo hired Valencia Community College in Orlando, which agreed to provide a four-hour course for 20 of Cameo's salespeople for $700. Dole figures that is a bargain.

And Cameo has used Valencia training before for employees, from top management to maintenance people, she said.

Top managers have taken strategic-planning programs. Maintenance people, who might run into a bit of tension now and then when called in to attend to leaky plumbing, have learned about dispute resolution.

Like community colleges across the country, Valencia has seen its nonacademic training programs grow enormously in recent years, said Valencia President Sanford Shugart. Valencia draws between 10,000 and 12,000 nonacademic students a year from the business community and brings in $2 million to $2.5 million a year with such programs.

Shugart candidly describes the program as an important profit center for a public institution with diminishing state support.

Although Valencia pursues companies on the high end of the small-business scale - say, 100 employees plus - even those with head counts of only a few can enroll employees in Valencia programs.

"We won't market to them," Shugart said of tiny companies. "There's just not a lot of revenue or profit in that. But lots of small businesses sign a training contract with us, sometimes just with one person."

In the information technology area, particularly, where a company may need to get one person quickly up to speed in fairly sophisticated computer skills, Valencia often has one and two students from a given company, Shugart said.

Valencia's subject areas range from such "soft skills" as supervision, leadership and good business practices, to technical skills, particularly with computers, he said.

Now the college is packaging some of the so-called soft-skills programs it has developed for sale to other community colleges across the country, Shugart said. Those programs are "pure profit" because they have already been produced and now are just sold again, he said.

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